Friday, June 6, 2008

Why We Can't Have God All to Ourselves

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
June 7, 2008
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, E. Grand Forks, MN
Micah 6:1-8

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Some years ago I helped plan a gathering of church staff workers—mainly folks serving on support staffs of congregations—you know, the people who do the daily “behind the scenes” stuff that keeps a congregation running.

Having discussed the joys and frustrations of this work, we came up with a gathering theme that “rang true” for all of us: I Love the Church—It’s People Who Drive Me up the Wall.

I love the church. I even love working in and for the church. But sometimes, there are people in the church who make me want to scream.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could serve the church—without getting all bound up with people, especially troublesome people? We can’t, of course. If you love the church, well then—sorry!--you’re stuck with people of all sizes and shapes, people of all sorts and situations. The church, after all, IS people.

But still….still we wonder, and we maybe even fantasize about a way of life in which people and their problems weren’t such a huge factor.

My wife Joy, who’s with me these days, is a medical social worker. She has worked with discharge planning, hospice and home care in hospitals across southern Minnesota and now in the Breckenridge-Wahpeton area.

Here’s a little secret. Sometimes Joy and I have about had it up to here with people and their problems. We’d like to run away….hide out in a cabin in the woods somewhere, all by ourselves—get away from people, especially get away from hurt, bruised, anxious, angry people and their tangled lives.

But, of course, that would be to abandon who we are and what God has called us to do. God has called both Joy and me to work with people, pure and simple. God, in effect, has said to us—and to you as well—you can’t have me all to yourself. You can’t have me (says God) without also “having” all the people who belong to me.

And that is what I understand to be the bedrock point of your SWO Convention theme for this year, from the prophet Micah: “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.”

As we heard in our First Lesson for this morning, this theme verse is part of a larger dispute that God was having with his chosen people of ancient Israel. In the first verses of Micah chapter 6, God throws down the gauntlet before them. God “takes them to court” so to speak, demanding that they answer for their unfaithfulness.

God goes after his Chosen People, reminding them of all that he has done for them—liberating them from slavery in Egypt, protecting them from enemies like mean old King Balak of Moab, leading them across the Jordan River (from Shittim in the east to Gilgal in the west) and ushering them into the Promised Land. God had not shirked, God had not failed them in any way. And yet God’s people had rebelled, fallen short, “blown it,” time and time again.

What is God to do with such a stubborn, rebellious people? How—just how can they make things right with God, get back in God’s good graces?

One possible solution pops up in Micah, chapter 6. The people of Israel might perform some religious ritual in their temple. They might offer a sacrifice of something dear to them—an animal or even many animals, rivers of consecrated oil, even their firstborn children (a thought that horrified both God and them, by the way!)

The point is that the people of Israel are ready to do almost anything for God in the realms of worship and sacrifice and prayer. They fervently desire to have God all to themselves once again, the way it used to be.

But God will have none of it! Micah sweeps away all thoughts, all possibilities of Israel “buying off” God through some heroic, perfect act of worship.

No. God wants something else. God wants the people themselves, God’s people, all of them—lock, stock and barrel. And God wants them only as they are in relationship with all the other people whom God loves.

“You can’t buy me off with religious devotion,” God says. “And you can’t have me all to yourself, either. You can—indeed, by my sheer grace, you will have me only in relationship to your neighbors. And here’s what I’m looking for from you
· Do justice to your neighbors
· Love kindness among your neighbors
· Walk humbly with your God, in the midst of your neighbors.

When you have me, God declares, you always, always, always get a “package deal.” You can’t know me, can’t love me, can’t do vital business with me without also embracing your neighbors.

I’m stuck with you—says God—and because of that, you’re stuck with each other. That’s how it is. That’s the only way that I the Lord your God know how to operate.

So, if you want to get close to me, God says through Micah, here are the first three steps

First, do justice. Get over your contentment with the world as it is. Look around yourselves and get in touch with all the ways that this world isn’t as God intended it to be. Get up close and personal with hunger and poverty, violence and oppression, sickness and strife. Become unsettled by all those things that are so contrary to God’s will.

And then do something about that! Act on your sense of injustice. Follow your justice-making God and do justice, wherever and whenever and however you get the chance.

If you want to get close to me, God says…
Do justice…and
Love kindness.

In a way “kindness” doesn’t really do justice to the Hebrew word Micah used, the word hesed. Hesed involves abiding loyalty to another person….sticking with someone through thick and thin, stubbornly refusing to give up on them, never abandoning them.

Hesed, mercy, is what God does best. Hesed is God casting his lot with the unlovely and the unlovable—doing so, unalterably, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God sheds his hesed on us, so lavishly, so abundantly that it overflows through us to others.

If you want to get close to me, God says…
Do justice to your neighbors
Love kindness with your neighbors
And walk humbly with your God in the midst of your neighbors.

Some Old Testament scholars observe that it might better read: walk carefully with your God. Which is to say—walk with God in a way that makes sense for someone who is walking with God.

It’s like dancing—if you’re dancing with God, who do you suppose should “lead?” Who properly follows whom? Do we not, every step of the way, take our cues from our walking partner, our God who graciously stoops to walk with us in the midst of our neighbors?

There once was a book, maybe you remember it—the title of which was God is My Co-Pilot. I remember a bumper sticker that came out some time later that read: “If God is your co-pilot, you’re sitting in the wrong seat!”

So also here in Micah 6:8, we’re invited to walk humbly with our God, always remembering who is leading and who is following. This third step is so crucial, it seems to me, because it grounds our doing of justice and our loving of kindness—grounds those first steps in our relationship with God who is always doing justice and loving kindness with us.

If I have any queasiness about this text from Micah 6 is that it too often gets snatched out of its biblical framework, highjacked by politicians and social engineers with all sorts of ideas about what makes for “justice” and “kindness”—torn asunder from the one true source of deep justice and wide mercy, the God of Israel and Israel’s greatest son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

It is not just any sort of Democrat or Republican justice that we do, or any Rotary or Kiwanis variety of kindness that we love. It is the justice and the kindness that flows from the heart of God who made all things, who in Jesus Christ is remaking all things, and who one day soon will finish up his new creation.

If you would be close to God and the ways of God….God invites you and me to take three steps…
· To do justice to our neighbors
· To love kindness among our neighbors
· And to walk humbly, care-fully with our God, in the midst of our neighbors.

And as we do so, as we follow God, we will go in the right direction. We will not shrink back from people with all their problems. We won’t cross over to the other side of the street to avoid some suffering one who needs from us the pure milk of human kindness. We will go to the kinds of places and people Jesus went to….and indeed we will be Jesus in those places and with those neighbors.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Just a thought from William Stringfellow, "My People Is The Enemy", p.32 --

    "To become and to be a Christian is not at all an escape from the world as it is, nor is it a wistful longing for a "better" world, nor a commitment to generous charity, nor fondness for "moral or spiritual values" (whatever that may mean), nor self-serving positive thoughts, nor persuasion to splendid abstractions about God. It is, instead, the knowledge that there is no pain or privation, no humiliation or disaster, no scourge or distress or destitution or hunger, no striving or temptation, no wile or sickness or suffering or poverty which God has not known and borne for men in Jesus Christ. He has borne death itself on behalf of men, and in that event He has broken the power of death once and for all.

    That is the event which Christians confess and celebrate and witness in their daily work and worship for the sake of all men.

    To become and to be a Christian is, therefore, to have the extraordinary freedom to share the burdens of the daily, common, ambiguous, transient, perishing existence of men, even to the point of actually taking the place of another man, whether he be powerful or weak, in health or in sickness, clothed or naked, educated or illiterate, secure or persecuted, complacent or despondent, proud or forgotten, housed or homeless, fed or hungry, at liberty or in prison, young or old, white or Negro, rich or poor.

    For a Christian to be poor and to work among the poor is not conventional charity, but a use of the freedom for which Christ has set men free."

    This passage is circa 1964, but it ties in well with your message. I happened across the passage this afternoon, and imagine that this bit of Good News can be found written up by other folks in other times as well. Great that you shared it with the good people of our synod WELCA!

    Daniel Ostercamp
    Badger, MN